Point Breeze development rumbles? Blame the process.

Monday night’s South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S. (SPHINC) zoning meeting was not about zoning.

Of the projects on the agenda, the only one heard was OCF Realty’s proposed mixed-use development at the corner of Point Breeze Avenue and Titan Street, requiring variances for use and lot coverage. But you’d hardly know that from the meeting.

The meeting quickly became an open-mic session about neighborhood change, community control, and the perceived responsibility of private developers. Some neighbors asked legitimate questions (What will the one-bedroom apartments rent for? Will the builders hire people from the Point Breeze community? Could the commercial tenant be a pharmacy?), but many of the public comments were expressions of deep frustration in the face of changes that many residents feel little control over. The frustration and fear is real, and so is the development pressure in Point Breeze. People are worried about higher rents and taxes. So, yeah, the room was tense.

Point Breeze’s zoning meetings have become increasingly theatrical, complete with police presence and dramatic tension. And after last week’s regularly scheduled zoning meeting was postponed, Monday’s meeting promised to be a wild one. Earlier in the day, Philly’s blogosphere was frothing over the meeting’s dramatic promise, and the incendiarymisspelled opposition flyers. Some neighbors told me that word of mouth about the meeting and rumors about the development spread like wildfire, which drew them out. By the time that the meeting got rolling, Mount Zion Pentecostal Church (a former one-screen movie house) was packed.

Point Breeze is a neighborhood in transition, thanks to development interest marching south from “the other side” of Washington Avenue. Long-time residents feel mistrustful and marginalized. Lost in the din of public comment are serious questions that center on power and control in the face of neighborhood change. But Point Breeze’s zoning process is doing nothing to relieve that tension.

[via MyFoxPHILLY.com]

Transparency

MyFoxPhilly came to cover the meeting (see their emotional, black-and-white, gentrification vs. development piece above), but the zoning chair Claudia Sherrod told reporter Dave Kinchen that the network was not permitted to film the meeting. When Kinchen asked if it was a public meeting Sherrod replied, “This is not a public meeting. This is about zoning.” She then told gathering crowd the same thing. She’s dead wrong. It is a public meeting, and the more light that is shown on a decision-making process, the more accountability there is. Keep recording, everyone.

Stacked Decks

Protocols vary widely among neighborhood zoning committees. Point Breeze’s zoning decisions are arrived at through a written popular vote, a choice that allows proponents or opponents of a particular project to pack the meeting. In Point Breeze audience members are asked to fill out a form (personal info and vote) on signature sheets that are circulated. Signature sheets are reviewed, and the community’s zoning approval or opposition is announced after the fact. (Stay tuned.)

OCF’s Ori Feibush wrote on Philadelphia Speaks on Monday night that his project received 3 votes. That smells fishy to me, and Feibush claims he saw someone willfully removing signature pages to sway the vote. If that’s true it’s a travesty and South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S’ legitimacy as a zoning body should be seriously questioned.

SPHINC has a long history as a positive community force in Point Breeze, and I believe the people who work there have the neighborhood’s interest at heart. But the whole dynamic of their zoning meetings creates little space for meaningful dialogue about what kinds of development residents actually want and what developers are willing to give. There’s no room to find common ground.

And yet, as I listened to go-to zoning lawyer David Orphanides discuss OCF’s proposal and field questions, I couldn’t help but feel that the deck was stacked. How could residents not feel like decisions are being made for them? By the time a development comes in for a zoning variance, it’s all but a done deal. Is one informational meeting 6 months ago, as Feibush recalled, enough to keep the peace in a charged, changing neighborhood like Point Breeze? The information gap reinforces feelings of mistrust and resistance among folks protesting development.

The More You Know

Waves of development are washing over Point Breeze. Neighbors who want to shape that process (rather than putting energy into stopping it) should arm themselves with a deeper knowledge of the city’s zoning code and how the community’s role in zoning decisions is about to change. Clearly the community is motivated – put all of that energy to productive use by planning for the things Point Breeze residents of every stripe want, and arrive at development discussions with clear questions and requests. Better still, meet with developers early in the process.

Developers are fond of saying that they’re reluctant to invest in Philadelphia because the process isn’t transparent, and community demands are too unpredictable. The city’s new zoning code sets up a new, more standardized process for Registered Community Organizations to review projects. Developers are required to meet with one community group and present their projects to the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) within 45 days. That’s a lot less time to stall meetings or have protracted fights. And should neighborhood disputes spill into ZBA meetings, their rules will only get tighter. I fear that the more NIMBY neighborhoods become, the less time there is for substantive conversation about development, and the more the city will push to streamline development processes. That would mean even less community control. I can only hope the new zoning code’s changes will lead to better community meetings in contested neighborhoods like Point Breeze. But that is a two way street.

 

OCF Realty brings their variance case to the Zoning Board of Adjustments on February 15.

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